Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Looking the Part: Two Reviews

Power and Style

Dominique & François Gaulme, Power and Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012). Hardback. £50/$75.

Since antiquity, and possibly before, those in power have understood the importance of dressing appropriately. From penis sheaths and eagle feather headdresses to bejewelled crowns and Cartier watches, leaders across the globe and throughout time have used clothing to demarcate – and sometimes disguise – their positions of unique authority. The history of powerful people’s raiment is the subject of a new folio-sized volume by Dominique & François Gaulme. Lavishly illustrated and weighing a hefty 2kg, Power and Style: A World History of Politics and Dress looks impressive, but like the sartorial choices of certain notables described within it, the Gaulmes’ tome is possibly a case of style over substance. For starters, the promise of a ‘world history’ of dress is not quite fulfilled. The volume’s fifteen chapters roam reasonably widely, but their focus is on Western dress; and more specifically, dress from North-West Europe. The dress considered is almost entirely that worn by men. In the introduction, the authors explain that discussion of women’s dress will be reserved until the final chapter, because ‘women’s legitimate political power is very recent;’ the curious qualifier about ‘legitimate’ power is left unexplained.

The structure of the volume is narrative, rather than thematic. Whilst this approach has much to commend it; not least, the ability to grasp how sartorial vogues have changed over time, there are large chronological gaps between some of the chapters. For example, where chapter four considers the third and fourth centuries AD, chapter five concentrates on the fourteenth century. Chapter seventeen focuses quite specifically on the reign of Edward VII (1901-1910), but chapter six looks broadly at twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. These jejune rifts, which are characteristic of earlier works of fashion history, make it difficult to identify themes and to compare and contrast the approach to power dressing across different epochs. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, especially considering one of the authors is an anthropologist and historian, is the fact that the book does not offer much by way of critical commentary or engage with current debates about the role and meaning of dress. There are passing references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lévi-Strauss and Norbert Elias (chiefly within the first chapter), but it is left for the reader to draw conclusions about the changing significance of dress in political contexts. A whole raft of rather elemental questions flashed through my head as I read the book, but none of them were satisfactorily answered: What impression did political leaders seek to create with their raiment? What impression did they create? Who made the garments worn by powerful people? How long did it take them and how much did it cost? Why are certain items of clothing and body parts given more emphasis in some cultures? To what extent did leaders create new vogues or depend on tradition to cast their image? Why have some of the clothing styles and dress accessories of rulers endured, when others have not?

What little analysis there is exists largely within a series of nineteen page-long interpolations that focus on a random assortment of dress accessories and modish trends, from tattoos and diamonds to loafers and whiskers, all of which seem to have little or no explicit reference to powerful dress. There also appears to be one significant editorial oversight. The first sentence of chapter five, which considers the fourteenth-century Burgundian court under ‘Philip the Good’, opens with the sentence: ‘This third meeting was scheduled to take place on the bridge at Montereau, far to the south of Paris.’ The pronoun implies that the ‘third meeting’ should already be familiar to the reader. It is not. A sentence, or two, seems to have been omitted.

That all said, the book is of value for bringing together a huge assortment of exquisitely produced paintings and photographs of powerful men’s clothing, even though these images are not the subject of specific commentary and are not directly linked to the text. The book is also useful as a collection of anecdotes about famous people’s costume. In this sense, it would serve as a handsome introductory volume for those who wish to learn more about men’s fashion through the ages. However, whether such people would pay the prohibitively expensive cover price is another matter. Publishing the book in time for Christmas was therefore a shrewd decision.

 

grace-coddington-a-memoir

Grace Coddington, Grace: A Memoir (London, 2012). Hardback. £25/$35.

The importance of perception is inevitably a major theme in the memoir of Grace Coddington, Creative Director of American Vogue and ‘heroine’ of The September Issue, a film documentary about the making of Vogue’s 820-page September 2007 magazine. The memoir charts a fascinating career, which has seen Coddington occupy commanding positions on both sides of the camera. For nine years, Coddington worked as a model after winning a competition in British Vogue in 1959. In 1968, she joined British Vogue as a junior editor. After a brief and mouvementé period at Calvin Klein, she started work at American Vogue when Anna Wintour became editor in chief in 1988. From the perspective of somebody who sees herself as being both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ in the fashion industry, the memoir discusses the evolution of magazines, modelling, and haute couture on both sides of the Atlantic. It also reflects upon the rising fortunes of American Vogue, which Coddington argues has become a global brand under Wintour’s stewardship.

Coddington’s decision to write an autobiography was influenced by the release of The September Issue. In the film, Coddington and Wintour are cast as Vogue’s quarrelling matriarchs: the warm-hearted and idealistic stylist at odds with the cold and calculating businesswoman, ‘a protégée of the higher-ups at Condé Nast’. Coddington plays down this ‘rivalry’ in her memoir, but it is apparent that a tension, whatever the brilliant creative results, does exist between them. Whilst Coddington is impressed by Wintour’s transformation of American Vogue (and the fashion industry), she seems to have become increasingly dismayed by the consequences of this success; chiefly the expansion of the Vogue brand, which incorporates ‘the worlds of art, business, technology, travel, food, celebrity and politics’. Coddington repeatedly states that she is not a ‘fashionista’ and now rarely socialises with designers at all; she prefers to spend time with her partner Didier … and her beloved cats. At times, Coddington’s stance seems naïve, even anachronistic. She is unapologetic about her reluctance to embrace technology and make use of computers; she got her first mobile phone in 2006 and has her assistant print off her emails. But this is, perhaps, to be expected. Reflecting on a career that has spanned fifty years, Coddington writes as if her era is waning whilst that of Wintour’s is waxing. Throughout the memoir there is a profound sense of pathos, as Coddington believes that the fashion industry is now less interested in clothes (although she still dresses the models she works with herself). Instead, the spotlight has focused on the transient fortunes of stars, whom Wintour first put on Vogue’s cover. What this means, curiously enough, is that Anna Wintour’s remarks at the beginning of The September Issue, which were ostensibly directed at people who deride the fashion industry out of ignorance, apply to Grace Coddington rather well:

I think what I often see is that people are frightened of fashion and that because it scares them or makes them feel insecure, they put it down.

Through her writing there is a sense that Coddington has become somewhat frightened and intimidated, certainly bewildered, by what the fashion industry has become. That said, her decision to write a memoir, to publish a book about her cats and, however reluctantly, to participate in the filming of The September Issue, suggests she is beginning to come to terms with, and embrace, a fashion industry that is now very different to what it was in 1959. By charting the dilemmas, doubts and uncertainties that have confronted her and by trying to make sense of a whirlwind period of change, which she was often oblivious to at the time and which put her in strange and paradoxical situations, Grace Coddington has written an engaging book that provides an insightful and refreshing view of the modern fashion industry.

 

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